Largely immune from partisan discord, our national parks are refuges from the clatter; mountains and rivers without end. They showcase our shared heritage, from Gettysburg National Military Park to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
Parks also are economic drivers, a reality thrown into relief during the 16-day government shutdown. Gateway communities — think of towns such as Marblemount in Skagit County or Port Angeles — lost an estimated $414 million in visitor spending as a result of the impasse. A third of the 25 most popular travel destinations in the United States are national parks, attracting thousands of international visitors who putter around nature’s cathedrals, chiseled by oceans of ice.
National Park Service data for the Pacific Northwest are staggering: Washington parks annually draw more than 7.5 million visitors and inject nearly $420 million in surrounding communities. For Oregon, which only has one national park, the total is close to $60 million. The windfall for the outdoor recreation sphere is mammoth.
“America’s national parks are home to some of the most beautiful, iconic, and natural playgrounds in the world, helping generate $646 billion in consumer spending and supporting more than six million jobs annually,” said Kirk Bailey, vice president of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association. “With the national parks’ 100th anniversary in 2016, a federal investment in their future will provide greater access and recreational opportunities.”
President George W. Bush and his Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne championed a ramping up of park funding and infrastructure projects to coincide with the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016. The Great Recession not only had a chilling effect on the planned centennial, but ultimately crunched funding with the sequestration’s automatic spending cuts. There have been four years of budget cuts, an 8 percent reduction of the NPS’ operating budget. Its construction account has been whacked nearly in half. As a percentage of the federal budget, the NPS continues to decline: Currently it is 1/15th of 1 percent; in 1982, it was 1/8th.
President Barack Obama’s budget request of $2.2 billion for park operations and $10 million for the centennial celebration is a restorative, maintenance-level proposal that doesn’t require further chipping. Cut budgets, and you’re cutting rangers. That’s because most of a park superintendent’s budget support the very people who breathe life into the park experience.
For generations, the National Park Service was the last, best hope for nonpartisan unanimity. Let it remain so.